Shrines and Relics of St John the Baptist
By Fr Christopher Cook
SHRINES AND RELICS OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST
There are many shrines and churches dedicated to St John or housing relics of him throughout the world, and some of the most important will be mentioned below. At the end of this article you may read an explanation of the importance and rationale of relics, and of the spiritual value of pilgrimage. But those seeking the most authentic pilgrimage in the steps of St John need to travel to the Holy Land, to those places where he was born and brought up, where he exercised his ministry, where he died and where he was buried. This is where we shall start.
SHRINES & SITES ASSOCIATED WITH ST JOHN’S EARTHLY LIFE
AIN KARIM: The birthplace of St John
Figure 1. Ain Karim
Ancient tradition has long identified this town as the birthplace and hometown of St John. Mention of this is made by the Egyptian Bishop Serapion of Thmouis, who was a friend of St Anthony of Egypt, and who wrote a “Life of St John” ca 385/395. There are two main sites in Ain Karim:
The Church of St John
Figure 2. The Church of St John the Baptist
Originally there was this one pilgrimage church, which is an imposing 12th century basilica, built against the side of the mountain. Excavations have revealed evidence of pre-Christian and Byzantine buildings beneath the present church. This is the site of the town house of Zechariah and Elizabeth. As one enters the church there is on the left a small altar, beneath which is the Grotto of St John, the cave where he was born.
Figure 3. The Baptist’s Birthplace in the Church of St John the Baptist.
Figure 4. The Latin inscription under the altar reads “The Forerunner of the Lord was born here.”
The Church of the Visitation
Figure 5. The Church of the Visitation in Ain Karim
The second pilgrimage church is the Church of the Visitation, on a small hill across the valley from the Church of St John. There has been a church here since the fourth century, but the present church, built on the site of older ones, was only completed in 1946. This is the place where the Visitation took place, when Elizabeth met Mary as she was coming to visit her after the Archangel Gabriel had announced to Mary that she would bear the Son of God. Here St John the Baptist leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb to greet the unborn Jesus. Thus this is also the place where Our Lady first sang the great hymn we call the Magnificat.
Figure 6. The Well in the Church of the Visitation where Elizabeth greeted Mary
Later it was the place where Elizabeth fled with the infant John to escape from Herod’s soldiers. The nearby “Spring House” on a hill to the south was the place of refuge for them.
Figure 7. The cave in the Monastery of St John in the Wilderness, just outside Ain Karim, where Elizabeth sheltered John from King Herod’s soldiers.
Just to the north of the town is a Latin Monastery, and there is also a Russian Orthodox Monastery of St John, which claims that the prominent stone against the outer wall is the stone on which St John stood while preaching.
Figure 8. the Russian Orthodox Monastery of St John, Ain Karim.
THE SUBA CAVE: The early ministry of St John
Figure 9. The Cave of St John the Baptist, Suba, near Ain Karim
The cave is in the side of a hill less than a mile from modern Suba, a tiny, abandoned Arab village about 3 miles west of Ain Karim, which is now a suburb of Jerusalem. The cave was constructed between 700 and 500 BC. There was a pool outside the cave, which had a broad entrance and internal staircase. The pool was clearly meant neither for irrigation, nor for drinking. It seems likely therefore that the cave was originally a ritual bath. In his 2004 book the archaeologist Dr Shimon Gibson proposes that John the Baptist chose the cave at Suba near his hometown of Ain Karim, a cave which had an ancient tradition of ritual bathing, for his ministry of baptizing.
Figure 10. The Interior of the Cave of St John the Baptist.
It is claimed that John the Baptist was venerated in the cave from Byzantine to Islamic times. This claim is based on the figure of a man incised on a wall high up in the cave. This figure, about 28 inches high, has no name attached, but he is wearing a garment like a skirt that is decorated with punctures in the plaster, rather like a garment of camel’s hair. The figure’s right hand is raised, perhaps in blessing. There is a hole in the plaster between his lower legs, which could have held a relic of John the Baptist. That is conjecture, of course.
Figure 11. The Images incised in the wall in the cave of St John the Baptist
It could well be that the cave drawing depicts John the Baptist, especially given the strength of the local tradition that locates his home at Ain Karim.
BETHANY: The site of Jesus’ Baptism in the River Jordan by St John
The archaeological site at Al-Maghtas, in Jordan, has been identified as the biblical “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” and has been accepted since late Roman/early Byzantine times as the place where St John baptised Christ.
There are many churches and pilgrimage sites here, as well as the location which tradition tells us is the exact place on the bank of the Jordan where Our Lord was baptised. But of course the main focus of devotion here is not St John.
MACHAERUS: The site of St John’s imprisonment and execution
Figure 12. The fortress of Machaerus today.
Figure 13. Reconstruction of Herod’s Fortress of Machaerus.
There is a local tradition that Sebaste, the burial site of St John, was also the place of his imprisonment and beheading. This seems unlikely, and most people accept the account of the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, which gives the site of the beheading as Machaerus, across the other side of the Jordan from Sebaste. Machaerus was King Herod’s impressive hill-top fortress, whose ruins can be visited. It is easy there to imagine the banqueting hall where the wedding feast took place and the dungeon where St John was incarcerated. There seems to be no cult or devotion to St John associated with the site.
Figure 14. The Fortress of Machaerus: could this be where St John was imprisoned?
SEBASTE: The burial place of St John
Figure 15. Icon of the Burial of St John the Baptist.
We are told in the gospels that after St John’s beheading his disciples took his body away and buried it. According to ancient tradition this burial place was at Sebaste, the ancient city of Samaria, near modern day Nablus in the West Bank. Mention is made of his relics being honoured there around the middle of the fourth century, but the historians Rufinus and Theodoret record that the shrine was desecrated on the orders of the neo-pagan Emperor, Julian the Apostate, in 362. The body was partially burnt, and tradition relates that a quantity of bones was saved and carried away by monks. Pilgrims continued to visit the tomb at Sebaste, St Jerome witnessing to miracles occurring there in the early fifth century.
Figure 16. Within the ruins of the ancient Cathedral stands the small Nabi Yahya Mosque, built over the crypt containing the Tomb of St John the baptist
A cathedral was built over the tomb, but this was destroyed, and is now in ruins. Within the ruins there now stands a small mosque, the Nabi Yahya (Prophet John) Mosque, beneath which one can still descend the steps to the tomb in the underground crypt.
Figure 17. The Crypt containing the original Tomb of St John. The middle oculus looks onto his tomb, and the oculi on either side are of the Prophets Elisha and Obadiah.
This is the crypt of the ancient basilica. There one can see not only the tomb of St John, but also those of the Old Testament prophets Elisha and Obadiah. It seems impossible to verify whether the tomb still contains any of St John’s remains or not.
Figure 18. Signs of Devotion to St John in the Crypt.
THE RELICS OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST
There are various traditions which attempt to explain both what happened to the head of St John and where the bones of his which were rescued by the monks were taken. It is hard to reconcile the various accounts, and they are often at variance with each other. An important example of this is the fact that there are four different places which claim to possess the head of St John the Baptist. These are the Church of San Silvestro in Rome, Amiens Cathedral in France, the Residenzmuseum in Munich, and finally the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Each of these will be discussed below. It should be noted that in addition there are other places which claim to have a fragment or small piece of the skull.
There are those who will scoff at the very idea of relics and who make much of this apparent duplication, but it is important to bear in mind two things. The first is that when a claim is made to have the head or any other limb of a saint, it could well be that it is only a portion or fragment which they have. Therefore, a church possessing a portion of the skull could well, for convenience, declare that they have “the head,” and people could well assume it is the entire head. Another good example of this is the relic of the right hand or forearm of St John, which will be discussed at greater length below.
The second consideration is that even if a relic is not authentic, we can say that it has been accepted in good faith as authentic by earlier generations. As a result it has become a true focus for prayer and devotion through the ages, and as a result has become an important symbol of faith. It has then truly become something holy, sanctified through the prayers of pilgrims across the centuries. In that case the physical reality of the relic has been transcended, and whether it is “authentic” or not is in some sense unimportant.
THE FATE OF THE HEAD of ST JOHN
Figure 19. Head of St John the Baptist
These are no fewer than four places where one can make a pilgrimage to the head of St John, and indeed it is difficult to determine exactly what became of it. Robert Cargill, Assistant professor of Classics and Religious Studies at Iowa University has written, “Like the Shroud of Turin or the Holy Grail, the Head of St John the Baptist has acquired a mythical, larger than life stature over the centuries, due to the prophet’s importance in Christ’s story.”
Some fifth century scholars claim that the head was taken to Alexandria, only to be removed and sent to Constantinople by order of the Emperor Valens in the fourth century. The renowned historians and theologians St Nicephorus (758-829) and St Symeon Metaphrastes (900-987) claim that Herodias, the wife of King Herod, had it buried in the Fortress of Machaerus. The Eastern Orthodox tradition, however, is that it was interred in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem.
At this point let us follow the Orthodox tradition, which accepts this latter location, Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. The story of what then happened to the head of St John becomes quite complicated, and is liturgically celebrated in two Orthodox feast days, the first being the Feast of the First and Second Finding of the Head (24th February), and the second being the Feast of Third Finding of the Head (25th May). The First Finding was when the head was found, or rediscovered, in Jerusalem during the reign of the Emperor Constantine. From thence it was taken to Emesa in Phoenicia, where it remained concealed until the Second Finding in 453, when it was taken to the imperial capital, Constantinople.
Figure 20. Icon of the Finding of the head of St John the Forerunner.
It was smuggled away from Constantinople in the eighth century to save it from the destruction wrought by the iconoclast emperors, who wished to destroy all icons, images and relics. It was taken to Comana in Cappodocia, reverently housed in a silver vessel, and buried to keep it safe. By the middle of the ninth century the veneration of icons had been restored, and the Patriarch Ignatius was able to reveal its whereabouts. The relic was uncovered and returned to Constantinople. This was the Third Finding (ca 850).
Figure 21. Icon of the Third Finding of the Head of St John the Forerunner.
We can assume that the relic remained in the imperial capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for several centuries after this. The Byzantine Emperors were most of them enthusiastic collectors of holy relics. However in 1204 Constantinople was sacked and plundered by the crusaders during the Fourth Crusade. This was a most horrific crime, tragically weakening the Byzantine Empire over the next two hundred years and undermining its important role in stemming Moslem attempts to invade Europe.
After the sack of Constantinople and during the years of the Latin Empire large numbers of relics were taken away by the western crusaders when they returned home. Among these were portions of the head of St John the Baptist and other relics of him, which seem eventually to have ended up in places like Rome, Florence and Amiens. Some portions remained in Constantinople, some to be gifted to various Orthodox churches and monasteries, and some eventually to be seized by Mehmet II in 1453 after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.
The Church of San Silvestro in Capite, Rome
Figure 22. San Silvestro in Capite, Rome
The Church of St Sylvester is near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Pope Sylvester I (died 335) is famous as the Pope who baptised the Emperor Constantine, and his remains rest in the Confessio below the high altar of this church. The skull, or at least a portion of the back of the skull, of St John the Baptist is in the chapel to the left of the main entrance to the church.
Figure 23. The Skull of St John in San Silvestro in Capite, Rome
It is the case that the majority of the relics of saints from the East came to Europe either as a result of the crusades or in the aftermath of the 1204 sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade and setting up of the Latin Empire. That would explain not only this head relic in San Silvestro, and those in Amiens and Munich, but also all those minor relics of St John in churches and monasteries across Europe.
Amiens Cathedral, France
Figure 24. The Skull of St John on the Cathedral, Amiens.
Part of the skull of St John rests in this French cathedral, which was built expressly to house the Relic. The head was brought back from Constantinople in 1206 by the crusader Wallon de Sarton on his return from the Fourth Crusade.
Rezidenzmuseum, Munich, Germany
Figure 25. The Royal Palace (Residenz), Munich
Figure 26. The Head of St John the Baptist in the Residenzmuseum, Munich.
The reliquary in the Royal Palace museum in Munich is labelled as containing a relic of the skull of St John. This is among a number of relics collected by Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria with the Pope’s approval in the mid sixteenth century.
The Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Figure 27. The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
This site is said to have been a place of worship since the Iron Age. By the fourth century AD the temple there was the centre of the imperial cult of Jupiter, and was renowned for its size and beauty. In 391 the Emperor Theodosius I turned it into a Christian Cathedral. It is noteworthy that it was not dedicated to St John until the sixth century, which would suggest that the legend that St John’s Head was buried there is just that and no more. In 634 Damascus was captured by the moslem Arabs, but Christian worship continued in the cathedral until 706, when the Umayyad Caliph, al-Walid I, ordered the construction of a mosque on the site of the Byzantine cathedral. It was finished in 715, and is the amazingly beautiful building you can see today. According to a tenth century Persian historian, during the construction of the mosque workers found a cave-chapel containing a box with the head of St John the Baptist in it. Since Moslems also revere St John, the head was then enshrined in the new mosque, and has remained there ever since.
The mosque claims not only to possess the head of St John, but also other relics of his body. It can be assumed that among them is that portion of the cranium which belonged to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, and which was stolen by pirates in 1795, finding its way eventually to Damascus. This is possibly the only genuine relic of St John in the Grand Mosque. It is worth noting that in April 2001 during his visit to Syria Pope St John Paul II came and prayed at this supposed tomb of St John. Moslems believe that Christ will return to this location at the Second Coming!
Figure 28. The Shrine of St John the Baptist in the Grand Mosque, Damascus.
Figure 29. The Tomb of St John the Baptist within the Shrine in the Grand Mosque, Damascus.
THE RIGHT HAND OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST
There are many other places claiming to possess various parts of the body of St John, and among these those claiming to have his Right Arm hold pride of place. Again, there is a certain amount of confusion, not least because the two words “Arm” and “Hand” are both employed indiscriminately, leading to a certain ambiguity. Thus we see that several monasteries or churches may all have portions of the relic of a saint, while appearing to claim to have the entirety of the relic.
The right hand is seen as particularly important because it is with this hand that the Baptist baptised Christ. Similarly it is the forefinger of the right hand which St John used to point out Jesus as the “Agnus Dei.” The remarks made above about the ultimate irrelevance of whether a relic is “genuine” certainly also apply to the Baptist’s right arm.
MONTENEGRO. Cetinje Serbian Orthodox Monastery: The Right Hand of St John
Figure 30. The Cetinje Monastery
This is the hand with which St John baptised Our Lord, and it remains incorrupt. The tradition surrounding it is fascinating. The story will be told in some detail, for two reasons. First it is indicative of how involved and complicated these traditions are, and second it is a good example of the legends and traditions surrounding most of these relics.
Figure 31. The Right hand of St John in the Cetinje Monastery, Montenegro.
Tradition relates that St Luke the Evangelist visited the town of Sebaste, where St John had been buried, and took away the right hand of St John. He brought it to his home town, Antioch, where it remained for several centuries. It is said it performed many miracles, and from the seventh century, so the legend tells us, it would be brought out and shown to the faithful each year on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (14th September). If the fingers of the hand were open, it meant there would be a good harvest and bountiful year. If the hand was closed it would be a poor harvest.
In the year 956 the Relic was brought to Constantinople, the imperial capital. Records relate that in 1263 the Latin Emperor Baldwin gave just one bone from the wrist to the French knight Ottonus de Cichon, who gave it to the Cistercian monastery at Citeaux on his return home. After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the main relic fell into the possession of the Ottoman conquerors. In 1484 the son of Sultan Bayezid II gave the relic to the Knights Hospitaller of St John on the island of Rhodes to gain their goodwill. When Rhodes fell to the Ottomans and the Order moved to Malta, the knights took the relic of the right hand with them . During the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 the relic was taken in procession through the besieged city, and the success with which the Knights of Malta held out and the siege was raised was ascribed to the protection given them by their patron, St John.
Figure 32. The faithful queue in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow to venerate the Cetinje relic of St John
When Napoleon conquered Malta in 1798 and expelled the Order, the Grand Master was allowed to take with him the relic of the right hand of St John, which he gave to the Russian Emperor Paul I, who had been elected as the new Grand Master. After the Tsar’s death in 1801 the relic was taken to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, where it survived the Bolshevik Revolution and the storming of the Winter Palace because at the time it had been temporarily moved to another church for a special celebration. Having survived the Russian Revolution, the Relic went eventually to the Ostrog Monastery in Montenegro, and from there to its current location in the Cetinje Serbian Orthodox Monastery, also in Montenegro. It should be noted that some sources state quite clearly that this relic is only a portion of the saint’s hand.
MOUNT ATHOS: Monastery of Dionysiou: The Right Hand of St John
Figure 33. The Dionysiou Monastery, Mount Athos.
This Athonite monastery also claims to have the saint’s right hand. Matters are further complicated when we look at the photograph of the relic below. It will be noted that the form of the reliquary suggests that the arm is also present. But as noted above, the Cathedral in Siena claims to possess the Baptist’s right arm! One answer is that there is not necessarily a close correlation between the reliquary and the relic within. As can be seen from the photograph there is only a small portion of bone showing, and it can well be that there is no more than this, despite the reliquary suggesting there is an entire arm, with the hand attached.
Figure 34. The Reliquary containing the Right Hand of St John
There are various accounts explaining the presence of relics of St John at the Dionysiou Monastery, and it must be admitted there are various inconsistencies between them, although it is possible to try and reconcile them.
According to one account the Wallachian Prince Neagre Basarab presented the monastery with the right hand and a portion of the cranium in the sixteenth century. In 1795 however they sent the cranium to one of their dependencies on the island of Agios Eustatios, so that it could be used to bless the fields and protect them from a plague of grasshoppers. But it was stolen by pirates while at sea, and eventually found its way to the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, where it still remains. After this it was decided that their remaining relic would never leave the monastery.
Another tradition is that at the beginning of the nineteenth century the relic of the right hand was somehow in the possession of the Prussian adviser or consul in Constantinople, who richly adorned it with jewels. In March 1802, however, he gave it to, or returned it to the Dionysiou Monastery.
ITALY. Siena Cathedral: The Right Arm of St John
In May 1464 Pope Pius II presented this relic of the right arm of St John (or more exactly of the hand and a portion of the forearm) to the Cathedral in Siena. Each year the relic is presented for public veneration prior to the Feast of the Nativity of St John on 24th June. The decoration on the actual relic is an exquisite example of the mediaeval goldsmith’s work.
Figure 35. The Right Arm of St John in Siena Cathedral.
It seems that the great Serbian saint, St Sava, acqired the relic in the early years of the thirteenth century from Constantinople. Certainly he was visiting the Emperor Alexios II there ca 1200, or perhaps he procured it in the disorderly times following the 1204 sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade. At the time St Sava was collecting relics and other treasures for the Monastery of Zica, which contained the newly founded Serbian Coronation Church. In 1290 the relic was moved to the newly established Archbishopric at Pec, where it remained until 1462, when the brother of the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, handed it over to Pope Pius II, in order to prevent its falling into the hands of the Moslem Ottomans. Two years later in 1464 the Pope entrusted it to the Cathedral in Siena.
TURKEY. The Topkapi Palace, Istanbul: The Arm of St John
Figure 36. Reliquary containing the hand of St John in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.
It is said that an arm and a piece of the skull are in the museum at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It could be that when the son of the Sultan Bayezid II gave the Relic of the Right hand to the Knights Hospitaller of St John on the island of Rhodes in 1484 they kept part of it back, and that this is what is seen today in Topkapi. This is said to be one of the most beautiful palaces in the world, the seat of the Ottoman Sultans until the end of the first World War. It stands on the site of the imperial palace of the Byzantine Emperors.
OTHER RELICS OF SAINT JOHN
EGYPT: The Monastery of St Macarius (Deir Abu Macar)
As explained above, the tomb of St John in Sebaste was despoiled in the year 362 by the Emperor Julian the Apostate, and the remains partly burnt. Many of the bones were saved and taken away by monks to Jerusalem. From there they were moved to Alexandria in Egypt and buried in an orchard, until on 27th May 395 they could be enshrined in the newly dedicated Basilica of St John the Baptist, which had been built for them on the site of the former Temple of Serapis in Alexandria.
Figure 37. The church of St Macarius in the monastery of St Macarius, Wadi Natrun.
At some time in the tenth century the relics of St John were taken to the Deir Anba Macar, the Monastery of St Macarius in the Wadi Natrun, in the desert between Alexandria and Cairo. The reason for this can easily be understood, as it was at that time the most important monastery in Egypt. Conditions in Alexandria were precarious, because of the hostility of the Byzantine imperial administration towards the Coptic Church, which had refused to accept the Council of Chalcedon. In the fifth century the famous Catechetical School of Alexandria had moved to the monastery, and it was for many centuries also the seat of the Patriarchate. Indeed the Coptic Pope was very often chosen from among the monks of St Macarius.
Figure 38. The choir in the Church of St Macarius, looking towards the reliquary chest containing the Relics of St John in the north transept.
The exact location of St John’s relics had been lost, but in 1976 during excavations in the principal Church of St Macarius a small vault was discovered very close to the Haikal (or Sanctuary) of St John, and in it were found the relics of St John (and also those of the Old Testament prophet Elisha, whose relics had been saved together with those of St John by the monks at Sebaste in 362).
Figure 39. The entrance to the crypt where the Relics of St John were found.
The relics were gathered and placed in a special reliquary close to where they were found, before the sanctuary of St John. There in the Church of St Macarius they remain, visited by large numbers of pilgrims.
Figure 40. The Reliquary Chest containing the Relics of St John the Baptist and the Old Testament Prophet Elisha.
Figure 41. The Haikal (Sanctuary or Chapel) of St John the Baptist. The corner of the Reliquary Chest of St John can be seen on the left.
From Cairo it is possible to visit the monastery, and the other three ancient monasteries in the Wadi Natrun. The Wadi Natrun is sixty five miles north west of Cairo. It is important to say that both the Coptic Papacy, going back without a break to St Mark in AD 49, and the many monasteries of the Wadi Natrun and elsewhere going back to the fourth or fifth century, are the oldest still functioning communities and institutions in Egypt, predating by hundreds of years the Arab Moslem invasion and conquest, and are a more accurate expression of eternal Egypt, stretching back to Pharaonic times.
ITALY. Florence Cathedral: The Finger of St John
In 1419 Florence Cathedral acquired the Relic of the Finger of St John. It is said that this is the same finger which St John used to point out Jesus when he proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Others give a different emphasis and say it is the finger he pointed at King Herod, accusing him of his incestuous marriage to his brother’s former wife and his own niece.
Figure 42. The Index Finger of St John’s Right Hand in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence.
St. John the Baptist is much loved in Florence as their patron saint, and every year the city celebrates his feast day on 24th June with a holiday full of colourful events. The celebrations begin with a deputation from the illustrious Società di San Giovanni paying its respects to the mayor. The members of the Società then lead a procession of flag throwers and others in Renaissance costumes to the Baptistery of the Cathedral. There, they candles are lit and the precious relic of St John’s Finger is displayed for public veneration. Mass in the Cathedral follows, and in the afternoon as a grand finale a game of historic football in period costume is played in the Piazza Santa Croce. This “Calcio Fiorentino” is an early form of football, and is played between the four Quarters into which Florence is traditionally divided.
Figure 43. On Easter Day there is a draw for the semi-finals using white and red coloured balls.
Figure 44. The Final of the Historic Football match played on 24th June in honour of St John.
This relic of St John’s finger was given by the Byzantine Emperor John VII Palaiologos to the brother of Cardinal Piero Corsini. The Cardinal was bishop of Florence from 1363 until his death in 1405, when it was bequeathed to the Cathedral. The relic bore a lead seal from the Patriarch of Constantinople attesting to its authenticity.
The people of Florence had a great devotion to their patron saint, and were desperate to maximise his presence in the city. In the early 1440s the Florentines, under the leadership of Cosimo de Medici, attempted to steal the head of St John from the Church of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome. Their agent in this attempted theft was a well know architect, who however failed and was captured. He was put on trial and tortured, but was eventually released from prison in the late 1440s.
BULGARIA. St John’s Island: Skull fragment and a tooth
Figure 45. The ancient reliquary containing relics, discovered in Bulgaria in 2010.
In July 2010 a small reliquary was discovered under the ruins of a fifth century monastery on the Black Sea Island of St John (Sveti Ivan), off the Bulgarian coast. Local archaeologists opened the reliquary box and found a tooth and fragments of a skull and a hand. Based on their interpretation of the Greek inscription on the reliquary they believe these are relics of St John the Baptist. In 2012 the relics were DNA-tested and carbon-dated, with the results confirming that they belonged to a middle-eastern man of the first century. The relics are now kept in the Cathedral Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Sozopol.
Figure 46. The recently discovered Relics now in the Cathedral at Sozopol, Bulgaria
Roumanian Skete of the Forerunner, Mount Athos
Figure 47. The entrance to the Church in the Romanian Skete of the Forerunner
This Romanian monastic community on Mount Athos claims to have in its possession relics of St John, including a fragment of his skull and portions of the forearm, though it has been difficult to secure any further details. The main church is dedicated to the Baptism of Our Lord.
This community of monks, under the jurisdiction of the Great Lavra Monastery on Mount Athos, dates back to ca 1750, though it did not officially become a skete until around a hundred years later.
ISRAEL. Jerusalem, Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist: Portion of the Skull
Figure 48. The Church of St John the Baptist, Jerusalem.
This church is built on top of a very old Byzantine church dating to the fifth century, and adjoins the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St John. It is one of the oldest churches in Jerusalem and the holy land. It is believed that the church was built by the Empress Eudoxia (died AD404), who established many institutions in the holy land and has as a result often been called the second St Helen.
Figure 49. The Iconostasis in the Church of St John: the Reliquary of St John on the right, and the Skull of the martyred young man, Peter, on the left.
Figure 50. The Reliquary containing the Relics of St John in the Greek Orthodox Church bearing his name in Jerusalem.
Figure 51. The Relics of St John.
There are various relics of St John kept in this church of St John, and they include a portion of the Baptist’s skull. As one of the oldest churches in Jerusalem, it is significant that Orthodox tradition states that the head of St John was originally buried in this church. Byzantine sources refer to a church in the western part of Jerusalem that held relics of St John’s head, but there is no direct evidence it is this church which is meant. We do know, as has been already mentioned, that in the fourth century relics of the saint were sent to various cities, including Jerusalem.
It is interesting that during the Crusades this church and the adjoining monastery were the original “Hospital of St John”, the base for the work of the Knights Hospitaller of St John, who exist to this day as a Sovereign Military Order, and are sometimes known as the Order of Malta.
Figure 52. Veneration of the Jerusalem Relics of St John in the Cathedral of St Catherine, Krasnodar, Russia, in 2018
Figure 53. The Reliquary containing the Skull of the martyr Peter.
On the left in front of the iconostasis there is another stand with a complete skull contained in a silver casket. This is the skull of a poor 17-year-old boy named Peter, who was killed when he refused to convert from Christianity to Islam.
ARMENIA. Gandzasar Monastery, Nagorno-Karabakh
There are said to be relics of St John in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in the Gandzasar Monastery, in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia. Some say this includes the head, or a portion of the head of St John. This ancient monastery, dating back at least to the tenth century, has a wonderful location atop a large green hill above the historic town of Vank. The cathedral was built in 1216 by the powerful feudal lord, Prince Hasan Jalal Vahtangian, whose descendants have played an important role in national life up to the present day.
The monastery has been sacked several times, in the thirteenth century by the Mongol hordes, in the eighteenth century by Turkic tribes, and most recently in 1992 as a result of Azerbaijani aggression.
On August 16, 1992 some of the outlying buildings within the monastery complex were destroyed as a result of an Azerbaijani helicopter attack, which intentionally targeted the church. It is clear that the bombing of Gandzasar was not of any military importance, but rather that the raid was a deliberate attempt to attack the Armenian heritage in Nagorno-Karabakh.
According to the legend, when the Azerbaijani army bombed the monastery, the priest remained in the church, praying on his knees. At that moment angels appeared on both sides of the altar. The angels said that the monastery was protected by God’s will and that there was no reason to be afraid. Witnesses say traces of the angels are still visible on both sides of the altar.
Figure 54. Gandzasar Monastery, Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia.
Figure 55. The Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Gandzasar Monastery, Armenia.
A discussion about how the head of St. John the Baptist ended up in Gandzasar can be found in the “History of the Land of Aghvank,” which was written largely in the seventh century and expanded in the following centuries. It deals mostly with Armenia’s provinces of Artsakh and Utik, which are largely coterminous with present-day Nagorno Karabakh and adjacent territory.
The “History” includes a special appendix called “On the Sacred Head of John the Baptist, and about how it was Brought to the Province of Artsakh and deposited in the Holy See of Gandzasar.” It suggests that after many centuries of being sent from one place to another, the severed head of St John was taken to Constantinople by a certain prince, where “…Catholics tried to steal it.” To escape the wrath of the Catholics, the prince took it to Iberia in modern Georgia, where the head “became the possession of the brother of Prince Hasan Jalal, who was at that time ruler of Artsakh.” According to the text, in 1211 Prince Hasan Jalal visits his brother and asks him to hand the holy relic over to him. When his brother refused, Hasan Jalal seizes the head by force and takes it back to “his dynasty’s sepulchre, in Artsakh.”, whence it is eventually translated to the Cathedral of St John, which in 1216 Prince Hasan Jalal built in the Gandzasar Monastery specifically to receive the relics.
The relics of the saint are said to be buried under the altar of the cathedral church. Moreover, the monastery also houses the relics of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the relics of his grandson Grigory, and also a relic of the Blood of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father.
INDIA. Calcutta: The Left Hand of St John
Figure 56. An Armenian in Calcutta venerates the Left Hand of St John.
There is an Armenian Church near Calcutta in India which claims to possess the Left Hand of St John. It is in Chinsurah, West Bengal, and every January on “Chinsurah Day” the Relic is used to bless all the Armenian Christians in Calcutta.
It might at this point be interesting to mention Halifax, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. St John is the Patron saint of the town, and his head appears on the town’s official coat of arms. One legend bases the etymology of the town’s name on “halez” (holy) and “fax” (face), claiming that a relic of St John’s head once existed in the town. The Agnus Dei appears on the crest of the coat of arms, which is particularly appropriate, for in the Middle Ages Halifax was a centre of the wool trade, and St John was the patron saint of the wool merchants. Of course, in the nineteenth century Halifax was an important woollen mill town. It is interesting to note the three large drops of blood depicted coming from the severed neck of St John.
Figure 57. The traditional Coat of Arms of Halifax.
THE UNITED STATES of AMERICA. The Art Institute of Chicago: A Tooth of St John (which but for a quirk of history might now belong to our Royal Family!)
The Art Institute of Chicago owns a very splendid reliquary containing a Tooth of St John the Baptist. The Tooth is contained in a tenth or eleventh century rock crystal vessel of Egyptian origin. In the Middle Ages it was in the Church of St Blaise, Brunswick. In the course of the Reformation in Germany the Dukes of Brunswick and Wolfenbuettel took possession of it, and it then constituted part of the “Guelph Treasure,” passed down from duke to duke.
Figure 58. Reliquary containing the Tooth of St John, Chicago Art Institute.
In 1815 the Duchy of Brunswick-Wolfenbuettel became the Duchy of Brunwick, but in 1884 Duke William VIII died without an heir, and the nearest male line relative was Ernst August, the Crown Prince of Hanover, great grandson of our King George III. Ernst August was the son of the last King of Hanover, George V, who lost his throne in 1866 when the Kingdom of Hanover was annexed to the Kingdom of Prussia in the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War. King George V and his son the Crown Prince went into exile in Austria. It was because the Crown Prince, Ernst August, would not accept the Prussian annexation of Hanover, that he was not allowed in 1884 to succeed to the Duchy of Brunswick, which was then governed by Prussian-appointed regents from 1884 until 1913. It was his son, confusingly also called Ernst August, who was eventually allowed to succeed to the Duchy of Brunswick in 1913, when he accepted the loss of Hanover, and married a daughter of the Kaiser, Wilhelm II. As ruling Duke of Brunswick Prince Ernst August thus became the owner of the Guelph Treasure and so also of the Tooth of St John the Baptist.
Sadly, Prince Ernst August lost the throne of Brunswick in 1918, when after Germany’s defeat in the First World War a republic was proclaimed and the Duchy of Brunswick ceased to exist. Perhaps because of financial constraints in the face of galloping inflation during the Weimar Republic, Prince Ernst August, last ruling Duke of Brunswick, sold the Relic to the Chicago Art Institute in 1931.
Here it is interesting to note that had the Salic Law (which stipulated that the Crown could only be passed down the male line) not applied in Hanover and Brunswick, Queen Victoria would have become Queen of Hanover as well as of England in 1837, instead of her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland. As Queen of Hanover it would have been Victoria who in 1884 succeeded Duke William VIII in Brunswick, and so she and her successors, right up to Queen Elizabeth II, would have become the owners of this tooth relic of St John!
A dental examination of the tooth confirms it belonged to a thirty year old man who ate a coarse diet, which would tend to confirm it is indeed a tooth of St John! It seems reasonable to conjecture that the relic, in its reliquary, came originally from Constantinople or further East, brought to Europe by those returning from the crusades. The Egyptian rock crystal container is particularly intriguing.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Kansas City, Missouri: The Finger of St John
Figure 59. Reliquary containing the Finger Bone of St John.
This relic also formed part of the Guelph Treasure, which had been in the possession of the Dukes of Brunswick-Lueneburg and then the Dukes of Brunswick for centuries, and which was kept in Brunswick Cathedral. Like the Tooth Relic, which also formed part of the Guelph Treasure, it was sold by the then Duke, Prince Ernest Augustus, in 1931. In this case it was sold to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Like other many other relics, it originated in the east, and was probably brought to Europe in the years following the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The intricately wrought gilded silver reliquary is of German manufacture from around the year 1400.
THE RATIONALE BEHIND THE VENERATION OF RELICS
The Church anciently taught that, “the sacred bodies of the holy martyrs and of other saints living with Christ, which have been living members of Christ, Temples of the Holy Spirit, and which are destined to be raised and glorified by him unto life eternal, should also be venerated by the faithful. Through them, many benefits are granted to men by God.”
Figure 60. A fine Reliquary containing Relics of St John in Genoa Cathedral.
The use of relics has some basis in Scripture. In 2 Kings 2: 9-14 the prophet Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah after he had been taken up into heaven in a whirlwind. With it Elisha struck the water of the Jordan, which then parted so that he could cross. In another passage (2 Kings 13: 20-21) some people hurriedly buried a dead man in the grave of Elisha, “but when the man came into contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet.” In the Acts of the Apostles we read, “Meanwhile, God worked extraordinary miracles at the hands of Paul. When handkerchiefs or cloths which had touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases were cured and evil spirits departed from them” (Acts 19: 11-12). In these three passages, a reverence was given to the actual body or clothing of these very holy people, who were indeed God’s chosen instruments: Elijah, Elisha and St Paul. Indeed, miracles were connected with these relics. It was not that some magical power existed in them, but just as God’s work was done through the lives of these holy men, so did his work continue after their death. This perspective underpins the Church’s understanding of relics.
Perhaps in our own age the whole idea of relics may seem strange. Yet we do well to remember that all of us treasure things that have belonged to someone we love, a piece of clothing, another personal item, a photograph, a lock of hair. These “relics” remind us of the love we shared with that person both while they were still alive, and also even after death. Our hearts are torn when we think about disposing of the personal possessions of a deceased loved one. And so, even more significantly, we treasure the relics of saints, whose bodies were holy instruments of God.
All in all, relics remind us of the holiness of a saint and his cooperation in God’s work. At the same time, relics inspire us to ask for the prayers of that saint, and the grace to live the same kind of faith-filled life. Relics in this way are powerful foci for prayer and love.
Figure 61. Relics in the possession of the Brompton Oratory, London
“O fear the Lord, ye that are his saints: for they that fear him lack nothing.
Great are the troubles of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of all.
He keepeth all his bones: so that not one of them is broken.” (Psalm 34. 9, 19-20)
Pray for us, Saint John the Baptist and all the holy Saints of God,
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ
Let us pray.
O Lord, who in the relics of thy Saints dost perform marvellous works, increase in us our faith in the resurrection: and make us partakers of immortal glory; of which our veneration of their ashes is a pledge. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, who with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, live and reign ever one God, world without end.
(Collect for the Feast of the Holy Relics, 5th November)
Figure 62. St John the Baptist by Bartolome Gonzalez y Serrano.